Politics & Policy

Illinois Primary Day Ends

And you had just learned how to spell "Andrzejewski."

If Illinois Primary Day snuck up on you, don’t feel bad. Until two years ago, it was held in March; the state moved up its primary to help out native son Barack Obama in 2008 and never switched back. Thus, this year’s crop of aspiring challengers had less time than usual to grab voters’ attention and harness that burgeoning dissatisfaction and anger.

Right now, no two positions in American politics are more infamous than “Illinois governor” and “Illinois senator,” thanks to the almost-open auctioneering that took place between Rod Blagojevich and the craven and obsequious career pol who ultimately was given the Senate seat, Roland Burris. Even in a state where politicians have become famous for their, er, convictions (Dan Rostenkowski, Mel Reynolds, George Ryan, Daniel Walker), the Blagojevich scandal stood out for its participants’ wildly reckless disregard for the law and the duties of their offices.

When the local U.S. attorney is on national television using phrases like “corruption crime spree” and “would make Abe Lincoln turn over in his grave,” it’s a sign the stables need to be cleaned out.

And yet turnout was strikingly low, in the neighborhood of 26 percent. That can’t be attributed to a lack of competitive races; as of midday, neither party’s gubernatorial nominee looked absolutely certain, and the Democratic Senate primary, as well as several primaries for the House, turned out to be surprisingly competitive.

At this moment, Bill Brady’s lead over Kirk Dillard in the Republican gubernatorial primary is less than 1,000 votes. Brady, a state senator who ran for governor four years ago, is in one sense an outsider, as he isn’t from the greater Chicago area, but from genuinely downstate Bloomington. Chicago television coverage of him on election night seemed preoccupied with the fact that he used to play poker with Barack Obama. A construction-company owner, Brady is a pro-life Catholic who wants to eliminate the state’s estate tax and sales tax on gas, and opposes local concealed-carry bans.

Kirk Dillard, a longtime state senator, probably ought to be judged on more than one comment in an ad for another political figure, but if conservative voters are recoiling from Charlie Crist’s hug of President Obama during a stimulus rally, one can only imagine how they’ll react to Dillard’s appearance in a campaign ad for Barack Obama, touting that they “worked on some of the deepest issues we had, and he was successful in a bipartisan way”:

The best news for the Democrats about their gubernatorial primary is that it will be over at some point.

It’s easy to sympathize with incumbent Patrick Quinn; he’s only had a year to persuade voters they want four more years of him, and that year has been marked by high unemployment and the aftermath of the Blagojevich mess. Still, his performance left 49 percent of Democrats thinking they would be better off with someone else, and it’s hard to imagine greater proportions of independents or Republicans thinking otherwise when the general election comes around.

His challenger, former Illinois comptroller Dan Hynes, is best known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the presumptive frontrunner who botched a winnable Senate primary against a little-known state senator name Barack Obama in 2004?” But Hynes, whose father, Thomas, was president of the Illinois state senate and a legendary Chicago Democratic ward committeeman, brought out the sharp elbows for this one, unleashing attack ads showcasing decades-old footage of Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor and an icon to Chicago Democrats, criticizing Quinn. The governor accused Hynes of trying to divide Democrats and playing to racial tensions; Hynes shot back that Quinn had a long history of failing to solve problems. 

Already, the Republican Governor’s Association is showcasing Hynes’s comments about Quinn, such as, “The fact is, Quinn would raise taxes on the middle class by 50 percent. Under Pat Quinn’s proposal, a family of four making $50,000 would pay over $600 more in taxes”; and, “The governor has done a lot of flip-flopping, but the one thing he’s been consistent on is raising taxes on the middle class”; and, “Remember, Pat, the reason you’re governor today is because you were Rod Blagojevich’s running mate. Twice.” No word on whether the RGA will send Hynes a fruit basket.

(Apparently time doesn’t heal all wounds; Obama made his congratulatory call to Quinn before Hynes conceded.)

Whoever wins will be haunted by the ghost of Blagojevich, and will inevitably face accusations of being a “Rod Zombie.” On June 3, Blagojevich’s corruption trial begins. While a plea deal is always possible, Blagojevich’s indomitable ego and showman’s persona make a high-profile and wildly entertaining legal battle extremely likely, and such a spectacle would dominate the headlines through most of the summer. While no one knows precisely when a verdict will be rendered, a fall decision is highly likely.

Voter enthusiasm for the current governing class will hardly be invigorated next month, when new property-tax calculations go into effect. A law passed by the Illinois legislature ordered that this tax year’s “first installment” be calculated at 55 percent of the previous year’s property-tax obligation; the calculation rate had been 50 percent for previous first-installment bills.

The turnout numbers from Tuesday are not encouraging for Democrats. Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling noted, “Whether Pat Quinn survives the primary tomorrow or not, the fact that there’s such a strong possibility of his losing says a lot about the unpopularity of incumbent Governors, especially in the Midwest. Yes, a lot of Quinn’s issues are very specific to him and Illinois. But you can’t overlook the fact that every Democratic Governor in a Big Ten State has horrid job approval numbers right now. Chet Culver and Ted Strickland can’t be feeling any better about their own situations when they see how close Quinn is to getting put out by the disgruntled voters within his own party.”

The Senate matchup is clearer (Mark Kirk and Alexi Giannoulias won the Republican and Democratic nominations, respectively), and while a Democrat in Illinois will always have some advantages, there are some ominous signs. About 883,000 votes were cast in the Democratic Senate primary, compared with about 735,000 votes in the Republican primary. As Jensen recalled, “Those numbers are awfully close to each other for a state thats overwhelmingly Democratic. For the sake of comparison the last time there were competitive Senate primaries on both sides in Illinois, in 2004 when Barack Obama was nominated, there were nearly twice as many votes cast in the Democratic primary as the Republican one. 1,242,996 voted in the Democratic race to 661,804 for the Republicans.”

Also somewhat striking is how quickly Giannoulias has burned through money. He’s raised a little over $3 million, spent only $546,293, and yet has only $963,335 on hand — an odd accounting from a city that has seen its share of those. For comparison, Kirk has raised almost $4.8 million, spent almost $1.7 million, but still has a stunning $3.1 million on hand.

The NRSC unveiled a Web ad that pretty much paints Giannoulias as one of the creepier lowlifes from The Sopranos. Blagojevich, prostitution rings, illegal gambling, shady developer Tony Rezko, and a gangster nicknamed “Jaws” all make appearances. It will be interesting to see if Giannoulias’s accusations that Kirk is a “Washington insider” get traction with all of that coming his way.

Kirk brings less-than-stellar conservative credentials to the general election, but Illinois Republicans will probably see him as far preferable to a young, slick Chicago figure tied to Rezko. And while one can count on multiple visits from President Obama, in the end the president didn’t bring independents to Creigh Deeds, Jon Corzine, or Martha Coakley. A long road is ahead for Republicans in Illinois, but for the first time in a long time, it feels like the wind is at their back.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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